San Luis Obispo County hires labor specialist to deal with multiple unions

Faced with an unprecedented series of negotiations with its employee unions, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to hire a labor relations specialist to aid in its ongoing effort to tighten its approach to dealing with county employees.

County Administrator Jim Grant told supervisors that county management’s ability to work out salaries and benefits was “devastated” last year when chief management negotiator Gail Wilcox was placed on paid administrative leave and then fired.

Wilcox was terminated for an improper relationship with a negotiator for one of the employee unions, Tony Perry of the Deputy Sheriffs Association.

Grant described a yearlong process to get back on track. Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz has taken up much of the slack and is now officially management’s chief negotiator.

However, Grant added, 14 of the county’s 16 employee unions have contracts that are going to be open, and the county needs to hire outside help.

Prior to the county Administrative Office taking them over in 2003, labor negotiations were handled by human resources, Grant said. Douglas-Schatz has said that is the common practice throughout local governments in California.

San Luis Obispo County used outside negotiators before 2003.

Supervisors on Tuesday arranged for Renee Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP to work with Douglas-Schatz and her staff, at a cost of $150,000.

Two-thirds of that money came from savings in the administrator’s office when Wilcox’s job went unfilled for several months.Supervisors strongly supported the move, especially given the number of open contracts the county faces. Similar counties do not have as many bargaining units, Supervisor Jim Patterson said. One comparable county has only three employee bargaining units, he said.

The county has 2,450 employees.

Grant laid out some of the challenges facing the county, including rising costs, pension increases and the prevailing wage ordinance, which limits the county’s flexibility in negotiating contracts.

Board Chairman Frank Mecham said a chief goal is to be fair to both employees and the taxpayers who finance county government.